Op-Eds

The specialized high school controversy is a political sideshow

The real issue is admission to the rest of the city's high schools

[This op-ed was originally published in City & State on Aug. 20, 2018.]

Current proposals to deal with the appalling lack of black and Hispanic students in the city's specialized high schools by creating even more such "exam" schools are feeding the political and media obsession with these schools; at the same time this focus distracts the system from the much larger problem -- the academic isolation that affects tens of thousands of students in roughly 20 percent of city high schools.

There are now about 40,000 thousand students in one hundred high schools whose average eighth grade reading scores and graduation rates are the lowest in the city – the lowest of these have average eighth grade reading scores at below basic levels and graduation rates of less than 40 percent, vs. a citywide average of 74 percent.

This concentration of struggling students is due in large part to the effects of Bloomberg-era education policies that encouraged this segregation, despite the fact that the Department of Education’s own study predicted this problem.

The DOE commissioned an analysis by the Parthenon Group, which created a statistical model that showed the strong connection between grad rates and the number of struggling students in a particular building.

That study found, for instance, that a black or Hispanic girl with median test scores and attendance had a significantly higher chance of graduating as the percentage of struggling students in her school declined.

Despite the evidence of this report, the Bloomberg administration expanded the number of small high schools while poorly regulating their admission criteria, making it possible for them to find ways to exclude the neediest students.

It also instituted a high school selection process for eighth graders that has become incredibly complex and difficult to navigate, in effect giving middle-class families and successful students far more choices than many immigrant and struggling students.

Yet the media and political discussion has ignored this important reality, focusing instead on the admission process for the city’s specialized high schools, which enroll only a few thousand new students each year based on the results of a single multiple-choice test – the SHSAT.

The system in effect uses the SHSAT as its best “objective” gauge of academic achievement, even though the other citywide “objective” measure -- eighth grade reading scores – show twice as many students succeeding at the highest level than are admitted to the “exam” schools, including a far larger percentage of black and Hispanic students.

And while voices on both sides of this debate are raised about a relatively small group of students who would probably be successful in any school, tens of thousands of others continue to find themselves in effect locked into schools where their chances of success are artificially limited.

Since the percentage of struggling students was so closely aligned with a high school’s results, one idea explored in the Parthenon Report was the notion of using the high school admissions algorithm to cap the number of struggling students in each school, thus making it more likely that no school would have an overwhelming number of such pupils. Needless to say, under the Bloomberg administration this did not happen.

The United Federation of Teachers has made repeated suggestions for improving the admission process in the “exam” schools, including using multiple measures and prioritizing the highest-level performers from every middle school.

But however that debate turns out, the real focus of the DOE and our local political leaders should be on the academic segregation described in the Parthenon Report, a problem that the education bureaucracy and political leaders have largely ignored.

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